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Media manipulation is harmful

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Media plays a critical role in multiplying the effects and shaping public opinion. Sometimes media has been politically manipulated to serve selfish national interest or to create external threat perception, some cases are exaggerated.

In the wake of escalating US-China competition, the accusation of the Chinese ‘debt trap’ has been exaggerated by some Western media. Usually, those journalists and opinion writers do not go to the fields, just sit in their air-conditioned offices in Washington or New York to verify China’s investment projects. Such lazy journalism creates misunderstanding and misperception.

The ‘debt trap’ theory has been cited in a number of newspapers and commentaries, particularly written by the so-called experts, journalists and scholars of international relations, despite the lone findings do not reflect the realities.

News are the main sources of theoretical construction. This is just like what Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky point out that the media propaganda works very well because it does not target the uneducated and naive people but well-educated which are the ideal disseminators of the information or ideas.

Despite the reported claim has been somewhat convinced by some analysts, particularly ‘pro-Western’ ones, the other analysis with more inclusive sources of information has proven it disingenuous. For instance, concerning the case of Sri Lanka, which has been used as the case of China’s dept trap theory, the amount Sri Lanka needs to pay both the principal and interest for the port loan is far smaller compared to its external debt repayment.

There is only approximately 15 per cent and the Port Authority has paid on time using more revenues from other sources. More interestingly, China holds an estimated 9 to 15 per cent of Sri Lanka’s external debt. The rest is high-interest loans from commercial banks, mainly from Western countries.

The international sovereign bonds hold about half of the debt, with American holding two-thirds of their value and Asians only about 8 per cent. In this regard, Sri Lanka must pay an average interest rate of 6.3 per cent on international sovereign bonds and the principal must be fully redeemed within a period of seven years. In contrast, more than two-thirds of the value of Chinese state fund lent to Sri Lanka from 2001 to 2017 (including two-thirds of Hambantota port loans) has lower interest rate, with two per cent, and mostly repayable over 20 years. This clearly shows that the country owes more to Western than Chinese entities.

In this connection, Professor Barry Sautman of Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and Associate Professor Yan Hairong of Hong Kong Polytechnic University argues, ‘ironically, if Sri Lanka is debt distressed, it owes more to American and other Western entities than to its Chinese counterparts’.

Moreover, there is no Chinese military base at Hambantota port, as accused by some media. The port’s security remains in the hand of the country, which has its southern naval command in Hambantota, the claim clarified by the Sri Lankan government.

The other recent allegation of China’s naval base in Cambodia is another instance of media manipulation. Without hard evidence, the Wall Street Journal allegedly reported that Cambodia signed a secret pact allowing China’s military base to be built at Ream port in Sihanoukville province. This theory has been rejected by both Cambodia and China. It is totally baseless and distorted.

But this distorted notion has falsely become manifest in a number of media coverage and articles written by some analysts who sometimes draw their assumption based on the intuition and just cite others without seeking the truth. Unfortunately, some scholars and analysts rely their arguments on the news reports without questioning the sources. Field visits and field interviews with local stakeholders are therefore necessary for the analysts who claim to understand Cambodia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

The US Secretary of States later debunked the allegation and praised the Cambodia’s rejection to the claim at the ASEAN-US foreign ministerial meeting in Bangkok in June this year. The statement of the US chief diplomat was welcome by the Cambodian government, but some media and analysts neglect the statement, rather they stick to the fake theory of China’s naval base in Cambodia.

Media manipulation is harmful to pollical trust building and international friendship cultivation. Experts and analysts need to be more cautious and critical of the news that aim to distort the facts and mislead the readers. Professional journalism and educated readers must be promoted.

Sothiary Toch is a development practitioner, lecturer and researcher. He earned a Master of Development Studies from Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand. He is currently a doctoral candidate of International Politics at School of Politics and International Studies, CCNU, Wuhan, China.

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